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Wrestler, The (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2009
ImageThere is a time in our lives when we feel we're invincible. We've got so much life ahead of us that we're free to think about ourselves and only ourselves. But what happens when we pass that point? What happens when the truth of our own mortality punches us in the face, delivering that wake-up call from which we cannot escape?

Such are the questions asked by Darren Aronofsky's astounding new film, The Wrestler. But unlike The Fountain, his sci-fi epic starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, or Requiem For A Dream, his 2000 anti-drug fest, The Wrestler does not trade in towering statements. No, here the dreamers and scientists have been brought down to earth. To New Jersey, in point of fact. Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a once-great wrestling star, now duking it out for a measly amount of cash in school gyms and rec centers. For increasingly less money (a scene at the beginning shows a promoter handing Randy just a bare handful of bills, most of them fives), Randy puts himself through absurd amounts of physical punishment. After one particularly harrowing match, Randy has a heart attack and is told he cannot wrestle again. Now he has to try and find meaning in a life that had, up to this point, been defined by wrestling. Will he find it with a sympathetic stripper (Marisa Tomei) or perhaps through reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood)?

The Wrestler is a quietly powerful film. For all his great strength, Randy is a generally soft-spoken man, only raising his voice when he has to. Similarly, the film doesn’t try and blitz the audience. It shows the events simply, without any flash. It’s easily Aronofsky’s most naturalistic work. The camera hovers behind Randy’s back for much of it, like a gadfly that he just can’t shoo away. Aronofsky commented that Mickey Rourke is one of the few people who can act with his back, and he takes full advantage of it.

Of course, no review of The Wrestler would be complete without a heaping help of praise for Mickey Rourke, and I’m not going to be the exception. Rourke gives the best performance of his career, turning Randy into a fully fleshed out human being. He invests the character with such eagerness to do good, but without any idea of how to actually accomplish it. It’s a tender and heartfelt performance that should win every award that could be thrown at it. Rourke was the best part of Sin City, but even that couldn’t prepare us for the bravura work he does here. Marisa Tomei doesn’t quite live up to Rourke’s standards, but she is still impressive on her own as the stripper who has unintentionally stolen Randy’s heart. It doesn’t hurt that she does some on-camera stripping as well. Evan Rachel Wood is only briefly in the film as Randy’s damaged daughter, but she makes the most of her screen time. She spews hate and vitriol at Randy, and just when he thinks he’s getting through to her, he screws it up. Her response is heart wrenching, but ultimately, the only thing she can do to defend herself against his unknowing assaults on her.
The Wrestler was clearly a labor of love for Aronofsky, who spent many years bringing the project to the screen. The care is there in every frame. Aronofsky doesn’t rush the plot, or the characters, letting everything unfold as it will. He also takes care to accurately portray the world of wrestling. Early in the film, Rourke cuts himself with a razor blade, something wrestlers often do to appear as if they’ve really been hurt by the last hit. There’s another match that’s even more harrowing. Aronofsky uses hair metal to evoke the period where Randy’s life was one endless party. The film has been well received by wrestlers and wrestling fans alike.
The Wrestler is not a pretty story, or a happy one. While there are unexpected moments of hilarity (a particular encounter with a fireman-obsessed woman comes to mind), the film is generally pretty dour and not easy to swallow. But it’s all the better for it. This shouldn’t be an easy tale. Randy pushed himself and the people in his life too far and too hard, and now he has to pay the consequences. We may not want to watch it, but we have to. The Wrestler is tough, uncompromising, depressing, and easily one of the two best films of the year.

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